Urban Transit Infrastructure and Inequality: The Role of Access to Non-Tradable Goods and Services

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With 68% of the world population projected to live in urban areas by 2050, mass transit networks are expanding faster than ever before. But how are the economic gains from such expansions being shared between low- and high-income workers? Existing research focuses on the role of commuting to work, however much of urban travel is related to the consumption of non-tradable goods and services (retail, F&B, personal services etc.). Since low-income workers are overwhelmingly employed in these non-tradable sectors, changes in consumption travel patterns in response to a transit expansion leads to a spatial re-organization of low-income jobs in the city which has important implications for inequality. This paper develops an urban spatial model with heterogeneous worker groups and incorporating travel to consume non-tradable goods and services. We estimate our model using detailed farecard and administrative data from Singapore to quantify the impact of the Downtown Line (DTL). We find large welfare gains for high-income workers, but near zero gains for low-income workers. All workers benefit from improved access to consumption opportunities, but low-income non-tradable sector jobs move to less attractive workplaces. Abstracting away from consumption travel results in a five-fold underestimation of the inequality effects and failure to capture the spatial re-organization of low-income jobs in the city.


Last updated on 10/13/2021